Annette Kimmitt was toast the moment she got thrown out Joe Aston’s Rear Window.
Last Thursday, the white-collar gossip columnist revealed that the managing partner of corporate law firm MinterEllison had sent an all-staff email expressing concern about the company’s work for Attorney-General Christian Porter. Less than a week later, Kimmitt is gone.
This high-profile woman is the first person to lose their job in the fallout from historical rape allegations levelled against Christian Porter.
But this episode is about more than an old-school law firm’s cooked gender politics. It’s about a bungled public relations strategy, long-simmering office politics and the kind of inevitable generational divide that’s been rippling through all workplaces over the last few years finally reaching Australia’s cloistered, conservative legal fraternity.
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Hopelessly bungled optics
On Monday, MinterEllison put out a now poorly-aged tweet spruiking its International Women’s Day diversity and inclusion panel.
At the same time, partners were trying to work out the best way to axe Kimmitt without it looking too much like revenge of the patriarchy. Discussions were leaked in real time to the Australian Financial Review. But it was always going to look like that no matter how they did it.
The partnership at Minters is about 30% female — which is bad, but also broadly consistent with the industry as a whole. On Tuesday, the board told Kimmitt she was done. But Minters, which has remained officially buttoned down while leaking like a sieve, managed to mess up the optics of that too.
Officially, the firm wanted to hold off on an announcement for two months to make the axing look less “knee-jerk”. Too bad someone also leaked that to the AFR.
Still, it wasn’t just the coup-plotters that were guilty of crimes against PR. Kimmitt’s initial email, in which she said the firm’s working for Porter had “triggered hurt” for her and other female employees, was always going to be weaponised by her detractors.
It was a sign that Kimmitt, who is not a lawyer and had been brought in from consulting firm EY, didn’t understand the realities of the profession. It was a sign the boss, who’d tried to soften the firm’s reputation as a classic corporate behemoth by appearing in the Mardi Gras parade (the first firm to do so), was pursuing trendy agendas at the expense of Minters’ core work. This is a firm that handles $93 million worth of government contracts.
But perhaps Kimmitt’s biggest misstep — however well-intentioned her concerns about staff wellbeing — was picking the wrong enemy in that fight.
Picking the wrong fight
Peter Bartlett is MinterEllison’s longest serving lawyer. He has served on its board 20 years and been its chairman twice. He works for numerous media outlets (including SmartCompany), and more importantly, is an expert at repairing shattered reputations. He’s a natural choice for Porter.
It is understood that Bartlett started working for Porter around the time the attorney-general was subject to allegations of sexist, boorish behaviour in a Four Corners episode last November. That Kimmitt only became aware of this, as she stresses in the email, through Twitter last Tuesday, probably speaks to broader problems at the firm.
Bartlett is just the sort of partner Kimmitt couldn’t afford to publicly undermine. Compared to him, she’s a tourist at Minters. And for many in the legal world, her intervention smacks of a kind of naivety about the reality of what lawyers do, which is to often work for people out of favour in the court of public opinion.
One former (female) Minters employee suggested that Kimmitt’s demise was largely down to a profound misunderstanding of legal professional ethics. She felt that a male boss could well have faced similar scrutiny for so publicly undermining a top partner without going through the right process.
Kimmitt’s intervention also seems weird given Minters’ history. This is a corporate law firm after all. It’s worked for Crown and the Catholic Church. It’s in the business of helping people accused of terrible things.
But this was also an intervention where Kimmitt picked the side without the power. Her email was, it seems, a poorly-worded attempt to reassure younger, female members of staff that the firm still had their back no matter who they might be working for.
So far, the outrage directed at that attempt at managerial empathy has come from the AFR, the paper of the bosses. Those younger female employees didn’t feel as comfortable speaking to the media.
But generational issues like this one are becoming the norm in workplaces across the world. Publishing, for example, has been ripped apart over the question of whether to keep airing the views of racist reactionaries.
Many younger lawyers at firms like Minters frequently have to reconcile the kind of standard inner-city progressive politics a boomer columnist might snootily deride as “woke” with the reality of drawing a big salary from a culturally conservative place that largely helps out the big end of town.
It was only a matter of time before a dispute like this blew up.
MinterEllison tried to be a “woke” law firm and an old-school corporate titan. It is hard, if not impossible, to be both.
This story was originally published on Crikey.